KATOWICE -- One of the biggest Counter Strike weekends of the year began with a heartfelt Reddit post from Mouadh Yaacoubi. "Finally made it," he wrote alongside a picture of his arm, tattoed with the CS:GO logo. "After years of dreaming, I'm 130 metres away from Spodek." But Mouadh had no idea that one of the most heart breaking and bizarre things was about to happen.
Just 18 hours before the Spodek -- an 11,000-capacity arena in Katowice, Poland -- was due to open its doors last Friday for IEM Katowice, organisers ESL and IEM released a statement. Due to concerns over the spread of Coronavirus and public health and safety, the event would be closed to the public. It would be the first time in the history of the tournament that players would be competing in the Spodek without a crowd. Mouadh's journey -- a tale all of its own -- would be for nought.
His post was on the front page of Reddit by the time ESPN spoke with him, having amassed thousands of upvotes, and fans from all over the world sent their condolences to u/FromTunisia.
"I found out on Reddit and when I saw HLTV confirm it, I knew it was true," said the 28-year-old of the decision to close the Spodek's doors. "It was instantly two pints of beer and three quarters of vodka for me followed by tears all over the place. I was so disappointed and so, so sad."
Katowice had been described by Na'Vi's b1ad3 as a "mecca" and Mouadh's own journey there had been six years in the making. From Tunisia, north Africa, he had hoped to help grow interest in esports by attending the event and making content to share back home.
Three years ago, Mouadh quit his job at a call centre as a technical agent to pursue esports. He has been promoting gaming for a radio station as well as streaming and doing CS:GO commentary work alongside his full-time job. It was only by persuading the radio station to allow him to curate content at the tournament that allowed him obtain a visa.
"Where I work is one of few radio stations and media platforms in Tunisia that actually cares about gaming and esports," he said. "The visa situation is incredibly complicated and I needed my employer to give me the order to get one to go to Katowice. I told them I could make coverage for them, to show them how many people are interested in gaming. I was looking to get the first Arabic-African esports coverage at a major event like this.
"It was so stressful and tough to get a visa to even come to Poland. People lent me money and their equipment so I can make content. In Tunisia we never have these kind of events or a competitive scene and people just don't know about it, so me being in Katowice was the opportunity to be able to teach people back home about esports.
"The efforts it took for me to get the equipment, visa and permission from my employer was a hellish task. If there's something I'm feeling bad about right now it is that my employer had so much trust in me and I'm just going back home empty-handed."
There was also a financial issue.
"The money that took to get me here is enough for me to be in debt for eight months," he said. "I'm in debt because of this trip, I've been cutting living expenses in half and I don't think I can afford coffee right now, which is a big deal for a Tunisian, we love our coffee!"
Mouadh has been playing Counter Strike since 2001 but became more heavily involved after being attacked in 2016, an incident that broke parts of his spine.
"My back was pretty much messed up and I spent a lot of time in my bed without being able to move. I was streaming and commentating Counter Strike from my bed and I'm not rich or anything so the money I made from that actually helped me pay for my medical fees."
Mouadh spent his time studying, playing and commentating Counter Strike from his bed and that soon caught the attention of a PC manufacturer in Tunisia who wanted to do an esports event with him.
"That was when I became really involved in esports and it actually got me my current job at the radio station," he said. "We did a couple esports events together and at one of the events, the MC on stage was a radio host -- he heard me talking about Counter Strike and gaming and liked my passion so he offered me a job.
"I feel like my investment here in Katowice failed but for me, CS:GO has been everything to me since 2016. It helped me overcome my social anxieties, awkwardness and the reason I can communicate with people comfortably is because of Counter Strike. It's been a source in which I was able to make friends and it introduced me to other cultures from all around the world -- it even helped me learn and improve my English."
Mouadh also revealed that when IEM Katowice's tournament organiser Michal "CARMAC" Blicharz heard about him, he reached out and arranged a meeting -- the two went and got hot chocolate together.
"For me, the meeting was so important and precious," Mouadh said. "Being a radio guy and commentator for esports, meeting CARMAC, who's maybe one of the most important esports people in the world, was one of the best moments of my life. I was so happy and it was a really genuine interaction -- he's just a human being who's also in a bad situation. He gave me advice which for me was so important and so fulfilling."
CARMAC, ESL' vice president of pro gaming, sent his own emotional message to fans last Thursday after the cancellation and told ESPN of the battle to try to keep the event open to the public.
"The one thing that was added to our typical activities prior to the event was that we set up a taskforce for the event's health due to what was going on globally," he said. "Starting early February, we were meeting daily practically to discuss the situation and what we can do, what measures we can take in order to ensure everybody's health and decrease the likelihood of everybody getting sick at our event.
"This week, we've been in constant contact with authorities, getting reassurances that the event will happen, we had conversations with multiple bodies to discuss if our measures are correct or enough. All these conversations had been positive so it came as a very bitter pill to swallow at the eleventh hour when we found out from the local authorities [that the mass event licence had been revoked]. But this is something we accept and we move on because there's nothing else to do."
Through the weekend, CARMAC was spotted in several bars handing out freebies to fans watching the game as well as taking photos and mingling with as many of them as possible.
"I was outside in the city and met several fans," he said, with tears in his eyes. "They recognise me, they ask me politely to take photos. Most of them presumably bought tickets and the first thing they'd say to me is, 'We're so sorry that your event got closed down for the public'. It's so crazy that we've got a community of people who are so passionate, so warm and so understanding that the first thing they have to say to the organiser is, 'so sorry about your event'.
"There's so much negativity in the world and for some of the people that came here it's a calamity what happened. And yet, they're somewhere in a bar in Katowice with other people. They're enjoying the event, they're making the very best out of it, even though it's not inside Spodek they'll probably have great memories for the rest of their lives. It's so inspiring what those people do. You go out there and you do your very best without our help and to take memories home with you. I can't thank them enough because I can't help them enough for them to have a good time."
The Spodek might be empty but the CS fans who travelled to Katowice are in good spirits— Su Collins (@YinsuCollins) February 28, 2020
Shout out to the one @TeamLiquid fan here defending TL's honour against a hoard of @natusvincere fans including the one and only U/FromTunisia #IEMKatowice2020 pic.twitter.com/AdljvBIHNP
There was a final twist of fate for Mouadh -- he is a die-hard fan of Na'Vi, who lifted the trophy on Sunday after defeating G2 3-0 in the final in front of just 200 people. It would have been the first time he had seen them play live. Instead, he was crying tears of joy surrounded by all the fans who felt the same way as him.
"I feel like Na'Vi winning and me not being able to be there to watch them lift the trophy is just the universe trolling me," he said.
"I'm not going to be selfish about this. I'm not the only one who came from a foreign country and invested money, time and effort. It feels good to be with people who are all here for Counter Strike. We're suffering but we're suffering together.
"Meeting the people here has been insane, I've made friends, shared experiences and we're all sharing the love for the same game that gave me my job and what I needed to be who I am right now."
Mouadh became somewhat of a celebrity over the weekend in Katowice, thanks to a distinctive and recognisable tattoo of the CS:GO logo on his forearm.
"I got the tattoo because God or Allah, or whatever you call it, gave me the luck and the providence to be met with such events in life but then again, luck and randomness only got me here but the main factor in all this was Counter Strike.
"Some people mock my tattoo because they don't understand why I'd get a video game tattoo on my forearm, but for me, I carry it with me in life to remind me where I came from and where I started."